When the American Civil War came to Southampton

In the 1860s, thousands of miles away across the Atlantic Ocean, the American Civil War raged for four long years. But one night in 1862, it came to a Southampton pub.

The Civil War exploded into existence on 12 April 1861 when Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina. The United States Army surrendered and fled Charleston, where in its harbour lay a passenger steamer named the Nashville. The Nashville had sailed into Charleston during the battle, flying no flag, and was fired upon by a US ship – the first shot fired in the naval war that took place during the conflict.


CSS Nashville.

The Confederate Army seized the Nashville and fitted her out as a cruiser. Meanwhile, the US Navy formed a blockade, in an attempt to stop any Confederate ship from leaving. However, in October 1861, the CSS Nashville as she was now called managed to run the blockade by sailing close to shore at midnight with no lights, thereby silently slipping past two US cruisers. She headed for Bermuda, and then, for England.

On Tuesday 19 November, about 190 miles off the coast of England, CSS Nashville encountered an American merchant ship called the Harvey Birch which was sailing from Le Havre to New York. The Nashville ran alongside her and her crew boarded, forcing the Harvey Birch’s captain and his men to collect their posessions and leave their ship. They allowed the crew around an hour to gather their things and board the Nashville, but once they had done so, the crew of the Confederate vessel unceremoniously burned the merchant ship and continued their voyage to Southampton.

Nashville, Copyright 30 November 1861 Illustrated London News Group.jpg

CSS Nashville destroying the Harvey Birch, from the Illustrated London News on 30 November 1861. Image © Illustrated London News Group.

When they arrived in Southampton on 21 November, the CSS Nashville became the first ship at war to fly the Confederate flag in an English port when she anchored in the River Itchen. She proceeded to enter the outer dock, now of course better known as Ocean Village, and berthed there. The men of the Harvey Birch were released as free men, with Captain Pegram of the Nashville telling Captain Nelson of the Harvey Birch that he hoped they would part as friends, and that what he did was just an act of retaliation against the North. Pegram had hoped that whilst in Southampton he could have more weapons fitted, but Britain’s neutrality meant this was impossible, nonetheless his ship did go into the dry dock in December for repairs after being battered by Atlantic storms during the crossing.

She was set to leave Southampton in January when suddenly the USS Tuscarora appeared in Southampton Water. Her captain had been ordered to avenge the sinking of the Harvey Birch, and so tracked the Nashville to Southampton where she anchored, laying in wait. Britain’s neutrality meant the Tuscarora could not attack her rival whilst she was berthed in British docks, however this did not stop espionage and confrontation. The British government were now worried by the fact that two naval vessels at war with each other were locked in a stand off, and HMS Dauntless was sent to Southampton to observe them, whilst HMS Warrior and HMS Trafalgar loitered in the Solent, just in case.

uSS Tuscarora

Illustrated London News depiction of the USS Tuscarora.

On Thursday 16 January 1862 at about 8pm the dockmaster, Mr. Philip Hedger, encountered five men by the graving dock fence, on the south side of the dock, who he quizzed and found belonged to the Tuscarora. They were spying on the Nashville, and were armed. Hedger told them they had no right to be there, and escorted them to the gates after they had confirmed they were indeed watching their enemy. They then boarded a small boat and were taken back to their ship in Southampton Water.

Seven days later, on the 23rd, some Nashville men were enjoying a few beers in the Bell, a pub on French Street. The Hampshire Advertiser reported that there were about fifteen Nashville men, under the headline ‘ROW BETWEEN THE RIVAL AMERICAN SAILORS’, and they were met soon afterwards by two men from the Tuscarora, who, perhaps on a pub crawl of their own, had unwittingly entered the chosen bar of their enemy. According to the paper’s report, one of the men from the Nashville assaulted a Tuscarora man by knocking the cigar from his mouth. This man then drew a pistol and snapped it at the other, before running away. The police were called for, and the beershop was cleared. The landlord complained to Police Constable Marchbanks about their conduct, but nothing else appeared to come of it.

However, a week later, a letter to the editor appears in the same newspaper, allegedly sent by an eyewitness. This eyewitness said his attention had been directed to the article above, and he had read it with great surprise, and now wanted to set the record straight on what really happened. He said that on that evening, three men belonging to the Nashville entered the Bell, and the found that three men of the Tuscarora were present. One was a black man, although the author of the letter uses a word that I won’t repeat here. ‘Some conversation ensued between the two parties, which ended in a noisy dispute, but the whole was so far conducted with moderation‘, he wrote. ‘Soon an altercation arose between one of the Nashville’s who had drank rather more than was good for his health‘, and the black member of the Tuscarora’s crew. One can only speculate as to whether this was potentially because of the man’s skin colour. ‘The latter squared up and threatened with the aid of his companions, to “lick” the Nashville man… A minute later, the [black sailor] was sprawling under a table, where he had been sent by a well-delivered blow. During the whole of this time the other men from the Tuscarora and Nashville stood aloof, and took no active part in the fight. At once the [black sailor] sprang to his feet, thrust his hand into the breast of his coat and drawing forth a revolver deliberately snapped it three times at his opponent. Providentially, the pistol missed fire, he had his head well rapped against the wall, and in a short time the whole affair was at an end’. The author then says how this is fact, and takes great umbrage at the fact the incident was described as a ‘row’ when in fact, according to him, it was just a ‘squabble’, and after blaming the ‘Yankees’ for the whole thing, he signs off as ‘One of the Crew of the Nashville’. It is difficult to know whether or not this account was indeed a narrative of facts, or if the man was being biased, defending his comrades and blaming his enemies.

The Foreign Enlistment Act meant that if warships from warring nations were in a neutral port together, their departures must take place at least twenty-four hours apart. With this act known to both captains, on 3 February 1862 the Nashville left Southampton and passed its opponent in Southampton Water, guns showing. The following day, the Tuscarora sailed away.

Both ships eventually returned to America, where the Civil War wore on until 1865. One Nashville man, however, did not make the voyage. A year later, in February 1863, he appears in the Hampshire Advertiser, accused of stealing a sovereign coin. Alexander Goodwin told the bench that he came from America, and was left behind when the CSS Nashville left Southampton. One night, he was out drinking with George Voysey, a sailor. At about 7pm, they went to Mr. Habgood’s shop on the High Street to buy tobacco. In the shop, Voysey dropped a load of change on the floor, including the sovereign, and as he went to pick it up, Goodwin put his foot on it. The men scrambled over the coin, but Goodwin picked it up and put it in his pocket, telling Mr. Habgood that he’d look after it for Voysey as Voysey was incapable of taking care of it himself. The men left the shop, and Goodwin “lost” Voysey on the High Street (which I interpret as ‘legged it away from him’). He later found Goodwin in a beershop on French Street (maybe it was the same one that had witnessed the row, or squabble, the year before) where he refused to give Voysey the coin, or more to the point, change from the coin, as he had treated himself to a quart of ale. It appears he bought Voysey a beer too, but Voysey called the police, and Goodwin was arrested. He pleaded guilty, gave drunkenness as an excuse, and was sentenced to three month’s imprisonment with hard labour. Police Sergeant Blake told the bench that Goodwin had been living in a “very disreputable manner in Simnel Street” since being left behind in Southampton.

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